Therese Greenwood retraces Fort McMurray wildfire in new memoir

Wolfe Island author talks writing process and fire safety

Therese Greenwood.
Credit: 
Supplied by Therese Greenwood

Three years after the Fort McMurray wildfire, local author Therese Greenwood keeps the fire alive in the minds of Canadians with her new memoir.

Greenwood moved to the neighbourhood of Abasand in Fort McMurray with her husband in 2011. Five years later, they lost their home to the uncontrolled wildfire that destroyed much of the city and surrounding area.

“The fire was so hot, everything was completely incinerated—our barbecue turned to dust. The whole area looked like the surface of the moon, with crazy, grey craters,” Greenwood said in an interview with The Journal.

In 2018, Greenwood turned her experience into a collection of fictional short stories called Kill as You Go.

Now, the former Wolfe Island resident is publishing a memoir about her journey escaping the fire.

Titled What You Take with You: Wildfire, Family, and The Road Home, the book follows her experience as an eyewitness to the wildfire and provides reflections on mental health, her childhood, and her family.

Initially Greenwood had hesitations about writing a memoir, but she was encouraged by friends who saw the value in her story and told her she had a duty to write it.

The memoir is written as though she’s recounting her experience to a close friend over coffee—feedback that incited relief from Greenwood, who struggled with incorporating her personal details within the story.

“It was against all my training—I’m trained as a journalist. As a journalist, you’re supposed to keep yourself out of the story. In fact, in the first draft, I barely talked about myself at all—it was all factual. I had to teach myself how to do a memoir,” Greenwood said.

In reflection of her writing process, she offered advice to aspiring writers based on the experience.

“Find yourself a good editor and listen to their advice. I have a lot of editor friends. I sent it off to two [of them], and they said, “Why did you write this as if it happened to someone else?” Greenwood said. “It was very good feedback.”

She focused on telling her specific understanding of what happened when she evacuated the burning city “because it’s really important to get on the record what that experience was like,” so that people can be better prepared in the event of another massive wildfire.

“The fact that no one was killed during the fire makes people think it wasn’t as serious as it was, but there was just a combination of circumstances that meant no one was killed. The fire started at noon and not midnight —there would have been hundreds dead if it had happened at midnight,” Greenwood said.

Greenwood pointed out that wildfires are still a threat to many areas across the nation, including the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, where Fort McMurray is located.

“Just a few weeks ago, one of the Indigenous communities put its own ban on all-terrain vehicles because of the high fire risk in the area,” Greenwood said.

While Ontario has experienced a rainy spring this year, Alberta has been facing “a very dry season.”

“The conditions are very similar to what they were around the time of the Fort McMurray fire. If people even have the slightest fire risk, I hope they think about packing their 72-hour emergency bag and making sure they’re ready to go when the time comes,” Greenwood said.

She cited the “safety culture” in Fort McMurray as a major factor in the successful evacuation during the fire.

“As soon as the order came down, everyone evacuated because they had the background and the training. I worry that, in other communities, they may not be so lucky,” Greenwood said.

“The one thing you can’t replace is a human life, so that’s really the most important thing.”

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